Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Coronation of King Charles: Can the British crown shed its imperial past?

The coronation comes at a critical time for the British monarchy. Fourteen Commonwealth countries, including Canada, continue to have the British sovereign as Head of State, but times are changing.

In 2021, Barbados became the latest Commonwealth country to abandon the monarchy and become a republic. Jamaica has stated that it intends to explore the idea in the not too distant future.

The coronation is an important moment for King Charles to show the Commonwealth and the world that his reign will be modern, more efficient and more responsive to the legacy of British imperialism.

A modern coronation

British coronations have been steeped in pageantry and pomp for centuries, with some ceremonial elements dating back 1000 years. But at a time when people in Britain and around the world are concerned about the cost of living and war in Europe, an expensive coronation ceremony might seem insensitive and out of place.

Buckingham Palace seems to be aware of this. It has been reported in the media that Carlos may cut the ceremony down to an hour and reduce the VIP guest list from as many as 8,000 guests to 2,000.

In January, officials said the ceremony would “reflect the monarch’s current role and look to the future, while being rooted in the traditions and pomp of the past.” Anything else Carlos decides to cut will be a sign of how he hopes to be perceived as king.

A message has already been received. This coronation will be more personal and inclusive than any other. The canopy that will be held over Camila’s head when she is anointed queen will be carried by her five grandchildren.

colonial past

The monarchy also wants to control the pounds that will be spent on the coronation. It was announced last month that Camila would wear the Queen Mary crown, made in 1911 for Carlos’s great-grandmother. It is the first time since 1727 that a former queen’s crown has been reused. The palace says it does so “in the interest of sustainability and efficiency.”

But the crown is also a visible reminder of Britain’s colonial past. Queen Mary’s crown was designed to contain the Koh-i-Noor diamond. This gem, one of the oldest and most significant in Indian history, was considered a relic of the power and authority to rule. In 1849, the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire “given” the diamond to Queen Victoria at the behest of the British colonial government in India.

Over time, the diamond has become part of the crown jewels. As a symbol of British imperial power, it was displayed on Queen Mary’s crown at the coronation of King George V in 1911.

For years, many have called for the return of the Koh-i-Noor. India’s Attorney General said in a 2016 trial that the diamond “was not stolen or forcibly removed”.

The Indian government quickly backed down. The Ministry of Culture said it would “return the Koh-i-noor diamond in an amicable way”. Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan have also claimed it at one time or another.

For the upcoming coronation, the Koh-i-Noor will be conspicuous by its absence in Queen Mary’s upcycled crown. Cullinan diamonds which were part of Queen Elizabeth II’s personal jewelery will be used.

These stones were cut from the Great Star of South or Africa, the largest diamond ever found. It was purchased by the British colonial government in South Africa in 1905 and became part of the Crown Jewels.

Queen Elizabeth’s death in September 2022 reignited calls for the return of the Koh-i-Noor and Cullinan diamonds. This move could have major consequences for the monarchy, as India and South Africa remain members of the Commonwealth but without the king as head of state.

There are other signs that the monarchy wants to distance itself from its colonial past during its coronation festivities. A special exhibition of the Crown Jewels is due to open at the Tower of London on 26 May.

The history of the Koh-i-Noor will be a major theme and the exhibition promises to “explain the history of the stone as a symbol of conquest”. How that story plays out remains to be seen.

Will the new king help build a more peaceful and inclusive Commonwealth? Could it be done by an aging white man dressed in what many see as symbols of repression, privilege and colonialism?

Realists and critics alike will have to wait to see if the signs of progressive modernity surrounding the coronation translate into meaningful changes to a thousand-year-old institution.

Justin Vovk, PhD student, modern history, McMaster University

This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.

World Nation News Desk
World Nation News Desk
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